Plow drivers endure irate residents, long shift
"What am I supposed to do about it?" Engstrom asked, noting that a different driver knocked over the mailbox Tuesday night.
Broken mailboxes happen during snowplowing, said Engstrom, 36, perched high atop the street in her snowplow, "Ugly Betty." She only breaks about 20 in a winter, while some drivers take out that many in a night, she joked. Tuesday night, she clipped a mailbox as her truck slid backward down a hill.
But most residents don't realize that it's usually not the plow drivers who hit the mailboxes with their blades, she said. The weight of the flying snow topples them.
"The snow took out your mailbox. It was just the plow that was helping it," she said.
Engstrom was one plower on two shifts of city crews that attempted to keep streets clean during one of the biggest snowstorms in Janesville's history.
Two trucks typically are used for each of the city's 14 snowplowing routes, along with graders downtown and a pickup truck for hills.
City plowers anticipated finishing early this afternoon after being on the streets continuously since 4 p.m. Tuesday, said Mandy Bonneville, assistant operations director.
Sanitation and landfill employees were brought in for two shifts to relieve the regular plow drivers, who had worked about 27 of the last 41 hours by late morning.
After getting stuck in the city services parking lot on her way into work Wednesday morning, Engstrom discussed the game plan with her partner, Dave Schuler, before climbing in her snowplow.
The cab comes complete with heat, a radio and two cup holders—a special feature that not all trucks have.
The 13-foot blade on the front isn't visible from inside the truck. Instead, Engstrom guides her truck by the two bright red "whips" sticking up from the ends of the blade.
With all the drifting and swirling of snow, it's impossible to see the curb. So the whole truck rumbles—Engstrom takes aspirin before her shift to deal with the accompanying aches—as she finds the curb on her own.
"Every now and then, I tap it to make sure it's still there," she said.
Engstrom sets off to clear an eastbound lane—driving just over the centerline—on East Milwaukee Street while Schuler follows in a plow truck with a wing blade. His truck clears the other eastbound lane and pushes the snow that Engstrom has shoved into his lane, then spreads a salt-sand mixture.
Together, the trucks clear the street to the city limits, requiring three passes each way between the two of them. The process takes about an hour. Then it's on to clear the Milwaukee Street and Wright Road intersection.
"Some people will wait for you," Engstrom said as she made several loops around the intersection, paying attention to the traffic lights. "Others will honk at me."
Drivers want everything clear, but most don't have any patience to wait for a snowplow, she said.
Next, it's on to Wright Road from Highway 11 to the dead end just past Rotamer Road. The pair of plows repeat the process, but this time it takes four passes each way because of turn lanes.
"Gotta love these idiots racing up the hill," another plow driver jokes over the department's radio frequency.
"Don't be surprised if I go through a red light," Engstrom said, approaching an intersection.
Snowplows can do that if it's safe, she said.
Completing a "curb pass"—the final run to clear snow under mailboxes and up onto a curb—creates a wall of snow that often splashes up against the truck's window and hood.
It's the dreaded pass for every shoveler.
The force behind the wave of snow sends bags of trash flying a few feet and knocks over garbage cans.
Another angry East Milwaukee Street resident stood with his shovel—refusing to move—at the end of his driveway as the snowplow approached.
Apparently, he thought his presence would prevent Engstrom from doing her job.
"I have to make a curb pass by your house," she said under her breath.
While the man's neighbors, who also were shoveling, stood back from the road, Engstrom slowed down so she didn't pelt the guy from head to toe.
"I didn't bury him 'cause I could have," she said.
Schuler later tells her that the man became even bolder and moved out into the street when Schuler came through.
That happens all the time, Engstrom said.
When she first started plowing snow last winter, she couldn't make eye contact with people on the street. Now, she gives them a blank stare. If they start yelling and swearing, she cranks the radio.
One resident on the route purposely parks on the street to create a headache for them, she said. Snow and ice that build up around parked cars are difficult to clear once the vehicles are moved and can damage the plow.
She understands how frustrating it can be to have the end of your clean driveway filled by a snowplow, but she wonders what people expect her to do with the snow. She's just doing her job, she said.
Snowplow drivers could write a great book of tales from the street, she said.
It makes life easier to just accept that people will be angry with her for clearing their street.
"I know now people are just naturally mean, and it's my fault. I made it snow today. Did you know that? I picked 20 inches," she joked.
Does she get any sympathy being the only female city snowplow driver?
In some cases, "but I think they attack me more," said the blonde-haired, blue-eyed driver.
"It's open season" on any snowplow driver, she said, but her coworkers are a great group of guys.
"I don't take a lot of crap (from them)," she said, laughing. "I'm probably worse than they are."
But Engstrom's always worked in service jobs and enjoys the satisfaction of helping people.
"I love (snowplowing)," she said. "It's my favorite thing (to do). Everybody thinks I'm nuts."
The city of Janesville has reports of 165 damaged mailboxes this winter through the end of January, said Mandy Bonneville, assistant operations director.
The city will replace your mailbox if a snowplow damaged it. Call the city services department at (608) 755-3110.
The city will try to make repairs if possible or provide a temporary box and post until the snow melts, Bonneville said. In spring, a crew will more permanently install it.
For those who don’t want the mailbox the city provides, a one-time reimbursement up to $50 is available, she said.